|Rich Politicians And Meager Incomes
by TARIQ BUTT
Barring exceptions, there is hardly a single member of the National Assembly (MNA), who has declared the correct value of his assets in their statements of assets and liabilities, filed with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This is not only one's view after going through 1265 pages of the just released official gazette that contains the statements of 342 MNAs but anyone who would have a cursory look at this voluminous document would have the same considered opinion. In fact, these are not declarations but are mis-declarations, which are highly misleading about the real worth of the properties enumerated in them.
Nobody would believe that a house located at Islamabad's poshest Margalla Road has the present value of just 12,000,000 rupees. Not only reputed realtors but even an ordinary Islamabadite would safely put the value of such a residence between Rs.150,000,000 and Rs.200,000,000. Who would accept as true that several known and established billionaires, belonging to the fabulously rich families of Pakistan, own assets of just a couple of hundreds of millions? More ironical is the fact that these wealthy people have no car to drive and no house to live. This is the documented fact whether one believes it or not.
In most cases, everything has not been declared truthfully and honestly. And what has been noted is untrue, undervalued and underestimated. Only those who emerged as "pauper s" in this document, given their listed assets, may have spoken truth. The wealth of a number of MNAs has also shown a phenomenal raise but it has not been justified. In many cases, the sources of income have not been given. Concealment in every respect is the order of the day in these declarations. A general impression is that only those assets have been listed, which could not be hidden.
Neither Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani nor his spouse owns a personal car. However, Gilani is richer by just Rs.571,340 this year that he saved from his salary, which he drew as the chief executive of Pakistan. He put the value of his total assets at Rs.19,479,824 while these were worth Rs.18,908,484 exactly a year back. The differential of Rs.571,340 is the net saving from his salary of Rs.971,340 for twelve months (Rs.80,945 per month). Domestic expenses of Rs.400,000 were deducted from this earning. Gilani has no business in and outside of Pakistan, no income from agriculture or from any other source except the salary he gets as prime minister. However, he has Rs.7,965,125 cash in hand and Rs.5,014,699 as balance in his account with Barclays Bank, F-7, Islamabad. This totaled 12,108,484 last year.
Reading of the statements makes it clear that the MNAs have a special penchant for landed property. One doesn't find too many legislators who did not own plots in several housing schemes. There are some instances demonstrating that the lawmakers have bought plots even in those housing towns that they have been opposing in their speeches for different reasons and alleging hanky-panky in these ventures. This throws up a clear contradiction in what they say and what they pursue. Filing of details of assets and liabilities by the MNAs, senators and members of the provincial assemblies is an annual ritual, prescribed by the law. Anyone not doing so is liable to penalty that may extend to his unseating. The ECP has no legal authorisation or mechanism to check the veracity of these declarations. The federal and provincial legislators submit them every year and the ECP just publishes them in the official gazette. This is the total exercise. However, a law is under consideration under which the ECP would start sending these statements to the Federal Revenue Board (FBR) to scrutinize them and match them with the tax returns filed by the lawmakers. This could be a useful exercise, which would enable the government to detect who has earned what and how, and how his or her wealth increased or decreased during the year compared to his last statement.
However, even in the absence of a specific law to forward these statements to the FBR, the main tax collection agency has the powers to examine and look into the assets of any citizen to see whether or not he has paid the due taxes; and whether or not his assets and wealth have been made with white money. It has the authority to crack down on those making assets through black money. Of course, this would be a marathon exercise, but the FBR is meant to undertake such gigantic tasks. It would be possible only if there was political will and the orders to the FBR came from a person no less than the prime minister. However, in the given political arrangement, there is no such hope as the government is simply engaged in passing the time unscathed. There will definitely be an intense hue and cry if the FBR moves against any set of MNAs.
Another method of accountability of legislators could be to invite the general public to check and challenge the assets and liabilities' declarations, mostly by the voters. But there has to be a law in place for this purpose. The ECP is working on a variety of election reforms, and this aspect is also covered in them. Not only have the people at large but also concerned citizens wanted to keep a vigilant eye on the financial dealings of their lawmakers including ministers because they spend the taxpayers' money. Surely, there would be a lot of hullabaloo from the MNAs if the ECP tried to arm itself with such a law. The fate of the massive election reforms that the ECP has formulated depends on the government to turn them into an act of parliament. Obviously, if the regime is unwilling, these reforms can't become law through parliament.
Although it would be further burdening of the Supreme Court with another huge task, yet it is the apex court that can take up the job of scrutinising the declarations of assets and liabilities of the legislators. But in the absence of political will on the part of the present government, people are left with no option but to approach the highest court for intervention to rectify the wrongs. With the government not delivering, rather impeding the court judgments, the Supreme Court is saddled with more responsibility. This has indeed tremendously added to the workload of the court, which is doing its best, but when it comes to enforcing court rulings, the government has sadly been found wanting repeatedly.
Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) MNA Raza Hayat Hiraj recently moved a bill in the National Assembly, which sought disqualification of MPs and members of the armed forces and judiciary holding foreign accounts and properties and dual nationality. Although at the very outset the government did not oppose it with the objective of enticing the PML-Q into joining the federal cabinet to get its props for the passage of the federal budget, proposed legislation is unlikely to get the final parliamentary approval because several Pakistan People's Party (PPP) MPs would be hit by it. At least ten of the nineteen MNAs, who own apartments, businesses or bank accounts abroad, belong to the PPP, five to the PML-N and three to the Muthidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) while two are independent.
They include National Assembly Speaker Dr. Fehmida Mirza, wife of Dr. Zulfikar Mirza, Engineer Usman Khan Tarkai (independent), Makhdoom Amin Faheem, Sherry Rehman, Muhammad Jamil Malik, Faranaz Ishphani, Begum Ishrat Ashraf, Dr. Arbab Alamgir Khan and his wife, Asma, who is also MNA, Chaudhry Zahid Iqbal, Dr. Talat Iqbal Mahesar, Sohail Mansoor Khawaja, Farhat Mohammad Khan, Justice (retd) Fakhrunnisa Khokhar, Munir Khan Orakzai, Khawaja Mohammad Asif, Syed Ghulam Mustafa Shah and
Dr. Araish Kumar.